Thursday, August 31, 2006

West Ham Kidnap Tevez and Mascherano

I feel like I’ve woken up in bizarro football world. West Ham United, the one English Premiership club that I actively follow, has ended up sneaking away with the highly coveted Argentinean striker phenom Carlos Tevez and wily midfielder Javier Mascherano. Who would’ve thought it possible? Tevez, who has been AWOL from his Brazilian team Corinthians, has long been linked with a number of big European clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, and AC Milan among others, has now thrown in his lot with the scrappy meat and potatoes lager-fuelled East London Hammers. It was originally reported that Tevez and Masherano—the latter player also played for Corinthians and was a vital component in Argentina’s failed bid for World Cup glory—were going to West Ham on loan. But word has trickled out that the two Argentineans have signed permanent contracts with the club for undisclosed, no doubt big, big deals.

Why would these two uber-talented dynamos hitch up with West Ham, you’re probably asking, and not a more prominent team in the Premiership who could viably knock Chelsea (West Ham’s arch-rival) down a peg? I don’t know. But West Ham, if any of you doubters will care to remember, placed ninth in the Premiership last season (after being relegated to the Championship league the season before) and were runners-up in that spectacular FA Cup final against Liverpool where they subsequently lost on penalties. Do I actually think that the Hammers have a chance in beating down Chelsea off the top perch? Honestly, not really. But I do think they’ll have a realistic go at reaching fourth place and also winning the UEFA Cup, especially when striker Dean Ashton hopefully returns from his broken ankle injury in November.

Also today, Hammers’ manager Alan Pardew signed the highly touted 16 year-old Czech goalkeeper, Marek Stech from Sparta Praha. I know nothing about him, but I’m eager to learn more.

Oh, don’t think I can’t hear the snickers out there. But even you doubters will have to concede that West Ham’s new signings give them an even more daunting strike force (Harewood, Zamora, old man Sheringham, Cole) and a creative, strong, flexible midfield (Etherington, Benayoun, Reo-Coker). They may not be the prettiest football juggernaut out there, but the Hammers are determined to change minds this season, if not loyalties.

Tevez not angry no more.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

It's the hope I can't stand

That was the name of a Sunderland fanzine (more on them in a minute), but it perfectly describes the state of mind of any rabid Timbers fan right now. Apparently, if you do a perfectly arcane series of mathematical contortions and call on enough Elder Gods, there is, in fact, the slimmest margin of the slightest chance that the Timbers could go on to the playoffs--if they win their final three games, all at home, all played over an 8-day period beginning this Thursday.

This Thursday's game is against Montreal. Montreal is, as usual, number one in the standings and have almost twice as many points as the Timbers. It doesn't look good for us. And you know, if there wasn't even a possibility for those playoffs, I'd be okay with a loss at this stage--hey, we're still going out in our final games of the season playing pretty well.

It's the hope I can't stand.

Oh, yes, let's talk about Sunderland. You think you've had a bad year? Not like the Black Cats, who broke their own record for worst team ever in the Premiership and kicked off their new season in the Coca-Cola Championship by promptly losing their first four games and plummeting to the bottom of that table. But now. Here I was worried that the Jose Mourinho sideshow might not be as entertaining this season (although it seems he's off to a decent start), and now who needs Mourinho? We've got Roy Keane! I've stocked up on popcorn, taken a comfy seat, and settled in to watch the fun. Oh, I actually think this is a good thing for Sunderland and if anybody can turn the team around, it's Keane, that is if he doesn't tear their heads from their bodies first.

And then there's the Roy Keane/Mick McCarthy thing. What unassailable Fate keeps bringing these two enemies together? (See Derek's previous post for more links about Keane's antics and the Keane/McCarthy falling out.) Okay, they're both Irish footballers, so they were once on a squad together, and it's not so far-fetched that one would eventually end up managing the other on the national team as McCarthy did Keane. But now we have Keane more or less stepping into McCarthy's shoes at Sunderland (albeit a bit belatedly, as McCarthy was sacked in the spring), and the two will meet in November when the Black Cats take on the Wolves in a conflagration the likes of which we have perhaps never seen. Believers in reincarnation claim that we encounter the same people over and over for one purpose or another. Could this be the case with Keane and McCarthy, ancient enemies battling it out across and time, space, and the footie pitches? It's just like Highlander! Okay, scratch that. It's not a bit like Highlander. Anyway, Keane's presence at yesterday's match against West Brom, after he'd agreed to the position but not yet signed the contracts, seems to have inspired the Sunderland lads at last. Let's hope he keeps inspiring them without actually, you know, crushing their spirits utterly by opening up a big can of Roy Keane whupass on them all, because the Mackems deserve a break and a half-decent season.

Regal Cinemas Hates Footie, Too

Or, not a review of Once in a Lifetime.

It's never been a better time to be a soccer fan in the US, but one is still often made to feel as though one is pursuing some vaguely illegal, unwholesome, definitely frowned-upon course of action by following a sport perceived to trample beneath its cleats good old American values like passing a ball with your hands. It can be tough to see that ESPN is broadcasting yet another round of paintball battles or jumprope championships (true story) while important matches go untelevised in this country. But then you get 8000 or so people turning up in Portland's Pioneer Square to watch the final of the World Cup and you start to fool yourself that soccer is making bigger inroads around here than it really is.

Now I know lots of people who hate Regal Cinemas, some for its being a big meanie corporate conglomerate that basically controls film distribution through the Portland metro area (but let's face it, if it wasn't them, it would be somebody else), others, less ideologically, merely for the existence of The Twenty, which is certainly enough to earn you a place in one of Dante's hells if you ask me. But, my friends, I give you a new reason to hate Regal Cinemas. Last Wednesday, a pretty move rearranged various plans and commitments and gathered downtown for a viewing of the New York Cosmos movie, Once in a Lifetime. Two-thirds of a pretty move may even have found themselves bolting their dim sum and leaving before sampling the beloved shrimp noodles in order to make it to the cinema on time. The film had only arrived in Portland on the previous Friday, and was showing on exactly one screen in the entire city. So we arrived there only to find--no listing for the afternoon matinee! Apparently, another film needed to be screened at that time and some braniac at Fox Tower made the decision to pull the only film which was showing on only one screen in the entire city. Yes, Once in a Lifetime. Meanwhile, Little Miss Sunshine was doing whatever the hell it is she does on no less than three screens--that's every half hour--as well as everywhere damn else in town, too.

a pretty move then made a dreadful tactical decision: we checked the listings to ensure the film would play again this week, and planned to try again this Wednesday. And the listings were wrong. Here it is next week and Once in a Lifetime has vanished back into the void from whence it came.

Watch us all fall to our knees to summon the spirit of Chuck Heston. Damn you, Regal Cinemas! Damn you all to hell!*

*We did get some free passes for our trouble, but it's cold comfort. I'd have much preferred to have the film--or the shrimp noodles.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Mlada Boleslav

Not many people really thought the Czech team from the hard-nosed industrial town of Mlada Boleslav (home of the Skoda automobile plant and where Lynda and I lived for awhile back in the mid-1990s; the town not the factory) was going to beat Galatasaray in the third round of the Champions League, especially after the Turkish side dismantled Boleslav 5-2 a couple weeks earlier during the first-leg match. Even the Czech coach, Dusan Uhrin, Jr., seemed to have lost faith when Boleslav conceded the first home goal against Galatasaray on Wednesday in the second-leg. As posted over at the Czech Football Daily blog, the young Czech coach admitted that he'd "stopped believing" when striker Hasan Sas scored in the 73rd minute. The quote from Uhrin simply broke my heart when I read it. It seemed so quintessentially Czech in its wishful optimism and its simultaneous brutal self-defeatism. Did Dusan really think his scrappy club had a chance against the fabled club from Istanbul who was once voted the "Best Football Club in the World" in 2001, and who took the UEFA Cup in 2000 against Arsenal? Yeah, he really did, as did I. Boleslav defender Marian Palat equalized in the 88th, but it was too little too late, as they say, and the Czechs will now have to do their best in the UEFA Cup where they'll meet up with Franck Ribery and the lads from Olympique de Marseille. When I told Lynda this she laughed and said, "Too bad Fabien Barthez left Marseille, Boleslav might have a chance." Ouch! And she likes the eccentric bald-headed keeper.

You can read more about the first round of the UEFA Cup here.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

a petition to mr. pardew on behalf of benayoun

Poor Benayoun. I think he looks at the stars at night and dreams of a soulmate-in-football, a Ronaldinho, a Kaka, someone as fleet of foot as he is who can read minds while running. Someone with whom to sprint up-pitch, a parallel run, some fancy footwork, a few snakelike passes to and fro, a simple finish, a shared celebration. Is that so much to ask?

Alas, he's on a squad of scrappers and lone wolves. There are some team players: Konchesky, Etherington, Ferdinand. None of them fit the bill. I think Ferdinand would like to be that guy, but there he is, stuck at the back, defending. All the other fellows, they'll play with you, but you have to remind them or they'll forget you're there.

Take the other day against Watford: somewhere around the 75th minute, when we so longed for that second goal, Benayoun launched himself forward, tapped the ball to Zamora, sprinted around his marker, turned to receive the return pass, and found Zamora in glory-hound mode, dribbling aimlessly, no thought in his head except, "How can this ball go straight from my foot into the net?" The moment was lost, the ball surrendered, the match drawn.

I don't trust Zamora. He fights with refs; he has a certain golem-and-ring relationship with the ball. I'm glad he's scoring. Of course I am. His equaliser was sneaky, well-placed, and greatly appreciated, and owed everything to those glorious crosses of Konchesky's.

He never stops, Konchesky, one after another, the long, beautifully-placed ball in, an endless moving feast for all those lone-wolf forwards. How perfect would it be if Benayoun had his running-partner as well, so that the Hammers might excel in attack on two separate fronts?

And so, Mr. Pardew, here is my suggestion: your purchases have been inspired. Ashton was a stroke of brilliance. Let's have one more! Since we're on a budget, we'll avoid South America and head further north to Costa Rica. In their last two World Cup showings, the fast and graceful tandem runs have been the area in which the Ticos really shine. Look at Ronald Gomez, Winston Parks, Paolo Wanchope. Do you remember the look on Jens Lehmann's face? Not one time, but twice? What nectar is sweeter than that?

Please, sir, a playmate for Benayoun. I am your humble servant.

Real: the Movie

Here are the good parts of this dreadful piece of crap:

First, the theme music: a stirring, martial work, really brilliant as far as fascist theme-songs go, and a good reminder of a big chunk of Real's history, one past which this film noiselessly and not surprisingly glides.

During one of the subplots (there are five, all awful, all involving children from various cultures and how Real enhances their lives), a Japanese boy whose girlfriend is in love with Beckham rides through a Tokyo which has become a surreal Beckham Hell, his rival's face literally everywhere he looks. That's engaging for about seven seconds.

My favorite part is when the players clatter down the stairs to the stadium in that concentrated, pre-game quiet. It's that sound: a whole teamful of cleats on the cement, one of the best sounds in the world. Right up there with howling trains in the night and the first five minutes of "Apocalypse Now".

Then there's watching the ultramacho Roberto Carlos morph into a squirming girly-mon when a nurse takes blood from his arm.

If those bits don't sound amusing to you, then there's no reason at all for you to see this film.

There is footage, but not much. The training parts fall somewhere between music video and soloflex ad. The "climactic" game against Barca is edited to avoid any good look at Barca players, and so it's not really football.

The players speak little. Zidane gets asked why he used his weaker foot to score a particular goal. He looks with disbelief at the interviewer, conjures up his patience, and explains that the way the ball was coming at him, it would not have worked to have used his stronger foot. That's the level of insight this film offers.

Even the extras are nothing. "Player interviews"? Don't be fooled. It's a reporter hijacking the poor fellows after the advance screening. The unlucky ones smile helplessly and lie through their teeth, calling it "good" and "moving". The stoical Zidane slips past, avoiding capture.

In one of the subplots, a Madrid boy finds out his grandfather is the guy who kidnapped Alfredo Di Stefano back in the day. "Your father has never forgiven me for it," he says, as if it's an amusing peccadillo and not a dangerous crime. The boy replies, "My father is hard-hearted like all Barca fans." And, well, who can listen to nonsense like that on a full belly? You want to shake him and say, "Snap out of it, kid! You're headed down a road to ruin."

Oh, hell, I knew it would be a glorified advertisement. I just thought with all that money behind it maybe it would be an enjoyable one. It's not. Even harboring a certain low-simmering romantic frisson for Zidane doesn't make it worthwhile. Steer well clear.

Soccer Miscellany

Somehow, a day's break from blogging turned into an unplanned week off with a little change to spare. I don't know what happened. So for the few out there who've been wondering what's been going on . . . nothing, really. But with the Premiership back in action (though for some stupid reason I still haven't watched a match except the second half of the West Ham/Watford game) and La Liga starting up this weekend, things at a pretty move should be back in idiosyncratic order for now on. Now, without further procrastination . . .

The news that tempestuous Irish footballing legend Roy Keane is set to get his first managerial position trying to remake Sunderland AFC into a team to fear, is frankly the best news I've heard in a long time. Known for his volcanic display of heart and fire and brimstone fearlessness, Keano seems to be the right choice for the job. And over his long career, Keane's ability to dismantle the opposition psychologically, not to mention physically, is more than enough proof that this all-or-nothing Achilles is just what the woefully dispirited Black Cats need in their time of need, as do their loyal Mackem supporters. Whether or not Keane works out (and oh, how wrong things may go considering Keane's sometimes fractious relationship with his ex-Irish national team teammate and the new chairman of Sunderland, Niall Quinn), it's sure to be a fascinating chapter in British football history. I can't wait to see what happens when ex-Sunderland manager Mick McCarthy (now the manager of fellow Championship grunts Wolves) faces his nemesis on November 25th. Roy's and Mick's relationship is the stuff of modern football legend and Roy's infamous lashing out at Mick during the 2002 World Cup and his subsequent departure (known as the Saipan Incident) stuffed the football tabloids for weeks and even inspired a musical/comedy stage production! Oh yeah, this is going to be great stuff. Seriously, though, I really do hope Keano drags Sunderland out of the Championship and back into the top flight. Cheers!

And speaking of rivalries, the draw for the group stages of the Champions League were announced earlier today, and Chelsea will once again meet up (the third time in three years) with reigning champs Barcelona. Last year's quarter finals between the two was contentious to say the least, and their match up this time should be no different. Jose Mourinho and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich have made no secret of their ambitions to rule Europe like they dominate the Premiership, and if they have to sign superstar players (something Mourinho has not wanted to do in the past) like Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack to do it, then so be it. With all due respect to my Chelsea supporting friends out there (throw down those Rijkaard voodoo dolls!), better luck next year.

And last but certainly not least, a big congratulations to forward Byron Alvarez and keeper Bayard Elfvin of the Portland Timbers for being named USL First Division Player of the Week and to the Team of the Week respectively. We may not have a chance in hell to make the playoffs, but the both of you reminded us all last week in the game against Puerto Rico why we love the green and white.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

hungry for football, A PRETTY MOVE gathers for a double feature

Yes! Over a fine vegan spread (thank you, Lynda! I love being humored in my quest to eat only eyeless things, particularly by brilliant cooks) we sat down to enjoy a double whammy: the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final (underdog Internacional v. superpower Sao Paolo) followed by the greatly anticipated Barca v. Club America friendly played to a sold-out crowd in Houston.

The whistle blew and Internacionale hit the pitch with elbows and cleats flying, really with such enthusiastic violence that even Sao Paolo were taken aback. It wasn't long, though, before the champs in white started giving back as good (or bad) as they got, and by the close of the first half we (football romantics that we are) were so disheartened that we turned the channel. From the glances we took later it seemed the second half picked up speed with two goals by Inter's Rafael Sobis, a blond wunderkind likened unto our own Lionel Messi by the announcer, but closer kin to Cristiano Ronaldo, I think. Fast and fancy-footed, both become weirdly top-heavy upon stepping into the penalty area,--is gravity stronger there?--so much so that it is only the counterweight of the ball at their feet which keeps them upright and if it is spirited away they topple instantly to the turf. An inner ear condition, I suspect. Messi, I proudly aver, entertains no such impairment.

In any case, the score was 2-1 in Internacionale's favor last we checked, but to this day I don't know who won.

But then there was Barca! Like a reunion with old friends (OK: friends who don't know who you are or anything). We didn't get to see half enough of Messi in the World Cup, and Samuel Eto'o spent the summer melancholy in unqualified Cameroon. Most of the old faces were back, although Puyol sat this one out (to our great disappointment. What is a Barca match without the Armored Saint?) and it was bad news that Maxi Lopez has been loaned out to Real Mallorca. He never played, but he brought a certain dufus surfer-boy quality to the Barca bench of which we all became very fond. Van Bronckhorst, having no doubt had it up to here with being mixed up with Van Bommel, has rechristened himself "Gio", a male supermodel name if I ever saw one. And Rijkaard tried out some fresh faces: Eidur Gudjohnsen is an exciting new force in front, straight off a year on the bench for Chelsea, and Santiago Ezquerro, while not new to the squad, is new enough to the opening lineup. Valdez even sat down at the half to let backup keeper Albert Jorquera have a go.

It was a nail-biter from the first. Club America, a damn good Mexican team, played quickly and well, with an iron-tight defense and one fellow up front (Nelson Cuevas. Remember that name) who jumped through holes in the (admittedly slipshod) Barca defense to score a first-half hat-trick. Fantastic! I think it made poor Derek physically ill, but it was wonderfully exciting. The score at the half was 3-1 (Marquez headed one in early, an unpretentious goal without a celebration).

In the second half the big guns came out: Ronaldinho, Messi, Deco, plus Motta, with an even worse haircut than last year, and Oliguer, who promptly scored an own-goal, poor sod. It was beautiful to hear the crowd roar with sheer happiness whenever Ronaldinho touched the ball. As much guff as he's taken this summer, however deserved or not it may be, I am among those who are still enamored. I do wonder if he is not losing his trademark childlike joy. It seems inevitable. I suppose it IS inevitable, and I see evidence of it, yet I am loathe to let that old Ronaldinho go. In any case, he seemed revivified to be back amongst the Catalans, and it did my heart good to see it.

So it was 4-1 until about the 80th minute when the able Argentine Saviola tapped one into the net off a truly brilliant feinting run by Ronaldinho. 4-2, and not much time left. What does a great leader do? Draw a penalty! The announcers decided Ronaldinho was greatly exaggerating the foul, but it was physical; I'd have called it. So 4-3 and the minutes wore thin. We heartened ourselves with the thought that now our loss would be at least respectable, that our boys were fighting back well, and Derek said, "I want Eto'o to score."

No sooner spoken than performed! Eto'o, looking bulked up and healthy and with brand new hair, got a simple, graceful equaliser at the very last minute. We all cheered ourselves raw-throated, and sounded like raspy old smokers for the rest of the night. And isn't that the true acid-test of a great football experience?

Friday, August 11, 2006

What's it like to, what's it like to, what's it like to score a goal?

The ever-fabulous Luke Kreamalmeyer struck again to show us exactly what it's like (answer: it feels really, really good) and led the Timbers to a 1-0 victory last night against the Virginia Beach Mariners, ending our 5,987-game losing streak (oh, no, wait, there was that "decent result" against the worst team in the league, the Toronto Lynx, on an away trip recently). You know what feels even better than scoring a goal (in open play, no less!)? Winning!

The Timbers were downright revitalized last night. A winningly enthusiastic Bayard Elfvin made a rare appearance, starting in place of our longtime keeper Josh Saunders. Byron Alvarez was particularly aggressive compared to some earlier games, and Tommy Potl was, once again, on fire. Alas, the same cannot be said of section 107. What was it--hangovers? The longest winless streak in Timbers history had us sullen with despair? A rampant case of sudden-onset laryngitis? Not until well into the second half--following the goal, in fact--did the Timbers Army begin to really sound like its usual raucous self. The first half was all about chants dying within seconds or never making it beyond the first couple of rows. I thought I was in church for a while there, and I don't mean the holy-rolling, speaking-in-tongues, Pentecostal sort but more like, you know, Lutheran. The grumpy old man living inside my head feels compelled to point out that if you come to 107 to gab with your friends and simper in post-ironic fashion at the zoo that is the Timbers Army--if you aren't going to sing or at least make noise--perhaps you could consider conducting your anthropological observations from almost anywhere else in the otherwise sedate stadium? 107 aims to be something a little different, a bit more fun. If you're new, you probably don't know any of the chants (although I'm not sure how difficult it is to pick up complex lyrics like ole, ole, ole, ole, ole, ole or to repeat the first six bars of the White Stripes over and over and over and over and over), or perhaps you're shy your first time out, or you were humiliated by your second grade music teacher into never singing another note, whatever, but an attempt to watch the match and show a modicum of enthusiasm is much appreciated. Okay end of lecture; the grumpy old man is going off elsewhere to complain about car alarms or something (and aren't you glad you don't read that blog?).

So the Army eventually got it together and supported the team in full voice, while the Timbers showed up from the opening minutes, prompting delirious, half-disbelieving chants of "Shot on goal!" and by the end of the night inspiring serenades of We're gonna win the league! (Note to the irony-impaired: We're not.) When it became clear that the season was a wash and we weren't going to have even a taste of playoffs, I had one wish, and that was for the Timbers to end on a high note. Still four games left, plenty of time for us to be thrust back down into the Slough of Despond, but maybe last night was not an anomaly. Maybe the Timbers have at long last regained a spark of that magic we saw at the beginning of the season. Mamba's back from Zimbabwe (his mother had passed away), Scot's back soon from tryouts at Coventry City (go Scot!), Byron is looking like his old self again, and with the unstoppable force of Luke Kreamalmeyer up front perhaps crawling out of the shattered remains of the season with a little restored dignity isn't too much to hope for.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Players Here, Players There, Players Every F***-ingwhere, Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na

Unlike my co-bloggers--both of them Hammers loyalists--I have no particular allegiance within England's Premiership. There are teams I like better than others, of course, and generally--at least in matches that feature squads from the top half of the table--I find myself rooting for one team over another. Last season I rode along on the love-to-hate Chelsea bandwagon until I realized I liked a lot of Chelsea players and it was really Jose Mourinho, not the team itself, who I loved to hate. And then we all went too far and Jose's been giving us the silent pouting treatment, which takes all the fun out of it. Let's hope once the season gets underway he'll be unable to restrain himself.

But the point is, I am pretty neutral in English football. And yet--while I remain peeved at Arsenal for giving up their dazzle in exchange for a lackluster and undeserved win against Villarreal in last spring's Champions League semifinal (a strategy which I believe cost them the final) and I have not forgiven the far-more-elegant-on-the-pitch-than-off Thierry Henry for letting slip that uber-cool persona to expose a whiny blaming ungracious footballer underneath, the Gunners are threatening to seduce me once more with their recent signings. First was Czech wonderboy Tomas Rosicky and now, it appears, French sensation Franck Ribery is poised to don the red jersey. (And as I write this, Arsenal is delivering a Champions League thrashing to Croatian squad Dinamo Zagreb to the tune of 3-0.)

Meanwhile, Hernan Crespo's happily headed back to Italy where he'll be joining Inter Milan, which means that Derek is going to have to do some reshuffling of his Fantasy Football league, and Bolton announced that Mexican striker Jared Borgetti was going to Saudi Arabian club Al Ittihad, only he isn't. Sam Allardyce's insistence on keeping Borgetti on the bench this past season was a source of endless teeth gnashing and general frustration in these parts (as Derek has mentioned here before, I hold Allardyce responsible for Mexico's World Cup loss, as he ensured that their main striker wasn't match fit!), although you can understand perhaps why Big Sam didn't want to tamper with a lineup that was really working for him (not). Anyway, we hope Borgetti finds a good home soon where his talents will be appreciated; he's not getting any younger but he still has a good season or two ahead of him if he can just sign with a team that will actually play him.

In big news for American soccer, MLS has signed a new deal with ESPN/ABC which expands coverage to prime time, among other things, and gives the network responsibility for promotion and success. In even more exciting news, MLS is on the verge of announcing more details about a plan to develop players through team-run European-style soccer academies. It's not quite those sweet magic words "system of promotion and relegation" but this is a significant step toward making the US a more competitive soccer nation.

And oh yes! The Timbers did play this weekend, as a matter of fact. None of us has had the heart to write about it because, frankly, how many different ways are there to say we suck? And we've run clean out. The one advantage of having such an abysmally dreadful team is that you no longer spend the 90 minutes watching with your heart in your mouth, clutching your scarf till your fingers cramp and living and dying a thousand deaths in ninety minutes; instead you turn up assuming you're going to sing some songs, drink some beer, and lose. And guess what--you'd be right!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Copa Libertadores Addendum

The other semi-final second-leg match, between Brazil's Internacional and Libertad from Paraguay, just ended a little while ago and what a game! Last week's game was a bit dull and the two teams parted with a 0-0 draw. But even before tonight's match got started, you could feel--through the television no less--that it was all going to matter one way or another. Even before the first whistle was blown, the Brazilian fans lit up the stands with the requisite fireworks and flares, huge billowing clouds of gray smoke smothering the pitch like a lost set from Apocalypse Now. Both teams managed to stay tied for the first half, but the last half hour belonged to Inter despite some great opportunities by Libertad. In the end, though, Inter scored two fabulous goals and the stadium seemed to lift off into the galaxy above. It was one of those splendid and unforgettable events, even from afar, that made you feel good that you were alive. Now, if you don't mind, I've gotta split. I'm packing my bags and moving to Brazil.

Inter and Sao Paulo play the two-leg Championship final on August 9th and the 16th.

Chivas Semi-Final Flame-Out

Perhaps it was a good thing that Chivas de Guadalajara—one of Mexico’s most famous and honored football clubs—self-destructed so thoroughly and found themselves crawling away from a 3-0 Sao Paulo thrashing in Brazil last night, considering that their schedule is full of late. Chivas are set to play FC Barcelona this weekend in L.A. as part of Barca’s four game exhibition tour of North America before the start, in a few weeks, of the Catalans’ La Liga season opener. Then in a few days, Chivas is set to begin their new season. Six of their players, including keeper Oswaldo Sanchez, midfielder Ramon Morales, and striker Omar Bravo, recently played in the World Cup, and there’s no denying that the team looks a bit ragged-ass and primed for a siesta.

It’s only been since 1998 that Mexico has been involved with the Copa Libertadores de America, the South American equivalent to the European Champions Cup held every year, and in 2001 one of Mexico’s other top teams, Cruz Azul, made it to the final only to lose to Argentina’s Boca Juniors. Sao Paulo, the reigning champs, is one of Brazil’s best teams (and arguably the world) and it was obvious why when they do the things they do. Last week’s game, held in Guadalajara, was frustrating enough with Chivas going down 1-0. But last night was bad, bad, bad. For the first part of the game, Chivas held their own and managed to have a few good attempts on goal, most notably in the 28th minute when Morales delivered a flaccid penalty kick against Sao Paulo’s goofball yet fantastic keeper, Rogerio Ceni. It was a stinging disappointment for Chivas (and their fans), and one that continued to fester with brazen ambition when Leandro scored for the Brazilians in the 33rd minute. But that wasn’t the end to the pain. Oh, no. Midfielder Mineiro brutally punished the Mexican squad a little more in the 39th minute, inciting the crowd to flame on and preparing Chivas for a long, dragged out, excruciating second half. All of the bruises and wounds inflicted on me during the World Cup reopened. And poor Chivas, what must they have been thinking in the locker room?

The second half, as already mentioned, was dreadful for Chivas. . .and for me as well. The Mexican squad, especially the national players, were timid and nonexistent. If you hadn’t already figured it out, it was obvious that one team wanted to win more than the other. Chivas lost their cool and their balls—Bravo had an embarrassing freak out at one point when a Brazilian player touched him on the head and the Mexican player acted as if he’d been stabbed in the cabeza; Sergio Santana attempted a “Hand of God” move; a red card was dished out against Mexico in the 72nd when Hector Reynoso piggy-backed a Brazilian player, viciously kneeing him in the back; and on, and on, and on. The last 15 minutes were the longest I’ve had to witness since . . . well, the last Timbers’ home game.

But the match did have some awesome moments, including the many shots of crazed and joyous Brazilian fans lighting up the night with flares and fireworks, and the moment when keeper Sanchez had to stamp out a petroleum laced thingamajig that went soaring down onto the pitch from the terraces. At first, Sanchez ignored it. But then his manly impulses got the better of him and he decided to stomp it out. It didn’t work, at first. The fire antagonistically spread into two, three, four more flames. Sanchez eventually got the better of the conflagration, but it was the last time during the match that he would show such certainty.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Soccer Miscellany

A seven-game losing streak broken only by a 0-0 tie with the worst team in the league (ah, hell, maybe we're the worst team in the league), the Toronto Lynx. Let's face it: we're awful. All the same, I'll be at PGE Park on Friday night to watch the Timbers take on the Minnesota Thunder (also pretty awful this year, so perhaps there's hope yet) in the first of six home games, and the last six of the season. I'm not hoping for a playoff spot or anything so ambitious--just that we salvage some shreds of our dignity at this point, although I'd even settle for just seeing us score one goal that doesn't come off a penalty kick before the season ends.

In news from farther afield, Iraq's national soccer coach quits after death threats directed at him and his family, Alfio Basile leaves Boca Juniors to accept a position as the new Argentine national coach, and the cheaters in the Italian match-fixing scandal continue to go more or less scot-free, as AC Milan is slated to participate in this year's Champions League. Can someone explain to me why anyone would be deterred from further match-fixing in Italy? Even mastermind Moggi received what seems to me a mere slap on the wrist, a five-year suspension from the game when he clearly shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a player, pitch, or referee again, ever.

FC Dallas Roma stayed out past midnight and turned into a pumpkin, as their fantastic fairy tale run in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup came to an end last night against the charisma-challenged LA Galaxy.

And finally, in news that makes at least two-thirds of a pretty move very happy indeed, Mlada Boleslav, previously known only for its manufacture of Skoda automobiles (a digression: if you ever have the opportunity to tour the Skoda factory--and who wouldn't leap at a chance like that?--just know that inside its walls you will find a potentially lethal combination of vending machines that dispense inexpensive 500 ml bottles of beer for workers to consume on their breaks and forklifts and other equipment traditionally thought of in our silly Puritan American minds as "heavy machinery not to be operated under the influence of even, say, cough syrup" ), is one step closer to a UEFA title as they advance to the third round of Champions League qualifying following a tie away game against Norway's Valerenga, resulting in a 4-2 aggregate. Onwards, Mlada Boleslav! They'll be partying in the panelaks tonight!